Peruvian troops force end to hostage crisis

LIMA — Peruvian forces put a violent end to the 127-day-old hostage crisis late April 22 as they stormed the besieged Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima. All but one of the 72 hostages were rescued, and the 14 rebels who had been holding them were killed in an operation that ended in 37 minutes.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori said one hostage, Supreme Court Justice Carlos Giusti, was hit in the leg by a bullet in the shootout between Marxist rebels and crack Peruvian troops and died of a subsequent heart attack. He added that 25 of the hostages were injured.

Fujimori also told reporters that two members of a 140-man Peruvian special forces unit who took part in the attack were killed during the operation. All 14 commandos of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement holed up inside the residence were killed, he said. They included the group’s leader, Nestor Cerpa, and at least two teenage girls.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Francisco Tudela was shot in the leg and was undergoing surgery. Fujimori said he was doing well.

A Supreme Court justice was also shot in the abdomen but is expected to survive, he said. Some of the injured hostages were carried out on stretchers and taken to nearby hospitals, but many others walked triumphantly out of the residence into freedom after Peruvian forces overwhelmed the residence.

Fujimori, wearing a bulletproof vest, showed up in front of the residence, hugged the freed hostages and escorted them to local hospitals where friends and relatives had gathered and eagerly awaited their arrival. “I didn’t waver for a single minute in giving the order for this rescue operation,” Fujimori told journalists outside the ambassador’s compound.

Fujimori told reporters late April 22 that intelligence information convinced him it was an ideal time to end the impasse by force, but did not elaborate. Fujimori said he did not tell Japan of the plan in order to avoid any “unexpected situations.”

The end to the hostage crisis began at 3:23 p.m. with a huge explosion as a band of camouflaged troops charged into the residence, exchanging fire with the heavily armed rebels. Bolivian Ambassador Jorge Gumucio, one of the freed hostages, said eight of the rebels were playing soccer in the main hall of the diplomatic residence when the security forces struck, setting off an explosion in a tunnel directly beneath the hall.

The 140-strong assault team then poured through the front gate of the compound and blasted open the mansion’s front door. Others attacked from the rear and a third unit climbed onto the roof and shepherded hostages down to the ground level.

More explosions were heard, followed by smoke billowing out of the residence. Soldiers then dragged down and tossed aside the red-and-white Tupac Amaru flag from the roof of the residence, shouted “gloria, gloria” and sang the Peruvian national anthem.

The relatively low casualty toll among hostages surprised some. An armed forces assessment early in the siege estimated that such an assault would cost the lives of 70 percent of those in the compound.

Bolivian Ambassador Gumucio said that some hostages were informed of the attack 10 minutes before, but he would not reveal how. “We were waiting for the entry and it was a surgical operation with some cost,” he said.

A local police source said that in mid-March, Peruvian antiterrorism authorities started placing small transmitters inside deliveries to the residence by the International Red Cross to find out the rhythm of the rebels’ lives and at what time they changed guards. Fujimori said the military operation was “duly planned as a contingency alternative in the face of events that could damage the physical integrity of some of the hostages.”

A rebel member who contacted the media after the attack claimed that the four youngest Tupac Amaru rebels inside the ambassador’s home died to surrender before being killed during the rescue operation.

They were the four youngest. They were in a room on their own. They gave up out of fear,” said the rebel member, who asked to remain anonymous but identified himself using a code name. The Tupac Amaru member claimed he heard the hostage-takers surrender while monitoring an open, short-wave radio link that the rebels had with their comrades in Lima.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said, “I express my gratitude from my heart to President Fujimori and the Peruvian government, which conducted a triumphant rescue operation.” But he expressed regret for the lack of prior notification from Peru on the raid.

Hashimoto said he told Fujimori by telephone that he wanted to convey his appreciation and condolences on the death of the one Peruvian hostage and soldiers killed trying to rescue the hostages. Fujimori responded that: “It took time, but we were able to release all the Japanese without surrendering to terrorism. … Thank you for trusting us.”

The Tupac Amaru rebels stormed Aoki’s residence during a gala reception Dec. 17 to mark the Emperor’s birthday, taking more than 600 hostages. All but 72 hostages were freed in the following months.